Despite the fact that some America’s top players chose to sit out this World Cup — Anthony Davis, James Harden, Damian Lillard — and so did the next tier of guys (Bradley Beal, Kevin Love, etc.), this was still a talented USA Basketball roster that was the tournament favorite.
Then they got bounced by the French in the quarterfinals — Team USA will not even medal.
What went wrong? Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports and Real GM (and CelticsBlog) joins me to talk about everything from why players chose not to show up, how FIBA made things difficult for the USA and hurt the quality of the tournament overall, and what were the bright spots for the USA (such as qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics). There are no easy answers to any of it, but we get into what needs to change.
As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.
We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.
LeBron James loves Taco Tuesday — and it’s become a social media thing.
You already know what today is….. Yup you guessed it. 🌮 TUEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSDAY🤪😆😁😂🤣😋
— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 30, 2019
So much so, that LeBron, through one of his companies, tried to trademark the phrase with the plan to start a “Taco Tuesday” podcast.
However, that idea was shot down by the trademark office because “Taco Tuesday” is a “commonplace message,” meaning so many people use it no one person can trademark it.
The USPTO has refused the TACO TUESDAY trademark application filed by Lebron James’ company LBJ Trademarks, LLC.
The refusal, issued at 6:26 PM today, finds that TACO TUESDAY is a “commonplace message” and therefore fails to function as a trademark.#TacoTuesday
My analysis👇 pic.twitter.com/eKcW2l1CnH
— Josh Gerben (@JoshGerben) September 12, 2019
I’m no trademark attorney — although I am good at eating tacos — however, this seems a good call to me. Nearly every Mexican restaurant, and some not-so-Mexican restaurants, use Taco Tuesday in their advertising. It’s about as common a part of the vernacular as it gets. It’s already too out there to trademark.
LeBron wasn’t the only Ohio institution to lose out on a trademark application Wednesday:
JUST IN: The US Patent & Trademark Office has issued an initial decision on Ohio State’s attempt to trademark the word “THE.” They have refused the application.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 11, 2019
The United States has a gold-or-bust standard for basketball. It’d be nice to beat Serbia tomorrow then Czech Republic or Poland on Saturday. But this tournament is already a failure for USA Basketball.
So, Marcus Smart might as well not play through injury.
Shams Charania of The Athletic:
Celtics guard Marcus Smart has been shut down for Team USA’s remaining games, sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium. Smart wanted to play in final two USA games, but is nursing minor injuries and decision was made to avoid further injury.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) September 11, 2019
Marcus Smart underwent X-rays on a left knuckle injury this week that came back negative, but soreness in the hand along with quad/calf soreness led to the decision to shut him down. https://t.co/bWfGsLBdqW
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) September 11, 2019
Hopefully, these health issues don’t carry into the Celtics’ season. Boston placed a record four players on Team USA, which provided great opportunities to build chemistry. But injury was one of the risks, and Jayson Tatum is already out with a sprained ankle.
Kobe Bryant is maniacally devoted to winning and basketball. That made him an all-time great NBA player.
It also makes him an unbearable youth-sports coach.
View this post on Instagram
Here’s our fourth place “winners” picture lol six of the kids in the picture stayed with me and worked every single day to get better and continue to work to this day. The 7th player (not in pic) missed this game for a dance recital so that should tell you where her focus was at this time, meaning she enjoyed dance more than ball which is fine. Now? She eats sleeps and breaths the game. So from this original group of 7 we have added a player TWO years YOUNGER (6th grade now), a player who’s team in our area folded and a player who’s family moved here from Tennessee. The beauty of coaching is growing the players from the ground up. That journey continues #mambas #2yearsago
A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on
Bryant edited the Instagram post to add, “meaning she enjoyed dance more than ball which is fine. Now? She eat sleeps and breaths the game.” That makes it better, but it’s still not good. Putting “winners” in quotes like that for a kids game is a real jerk move.
When USA Basketball does not win gold — when it does not win, period, and do so convincingly — it dents the American ego. We see this as our sport. Basketball was invented in the USA, and as a nation we have dominated it for so long, so convincingly, that any change is a shock to the system.
But times, they are a changin’.
The USA got bounced from the World Cup on Wednesday by a French team that was simply better that day. The length and aggressiveness of the French defenders on the perimeter threw off the Americans, and the USA did not have anyone who could match up with Rudy Gobert in the middle. This was not a disaster for the USA, this was no embarrassment, this was not a lack of effort, it’s simply another sign that the basketball universe is changing.
Here are the three big takeaways from the USA’s World Cup experience in China.
1. TALENT WINS OUT
We see it every NBA season. We especially see it every NBA playoffs. And we saw it with this edition of Team USA: The talent gap between the top 10 players in the world (give or take a few) and everyone else is massive, and without those guys its hard to win big.
It’s the obvious, easy takeaway from this World Cup, but that doesn’t make it wrong: The USA did not send its best players and they couldn’t win without them. The members Team USA should not be embarrassed by the loss to France — the Americans were not lazy, they brought their best effort, France was just better on Wednesday. Talent won out.
As has been discussed in great detail in the run-up to the tournament, the best American players chose to stay home — as is their right. There are legitimate reasons for their decisions (keep reading to No. 3), but it still stung. C.J. McCollum added an interesting angle saying concerns about losing played a role and may have led to a snowball effect: A few guys decided to stay home, which led to fears of losing, which led more guys deciding to stay home, which led to more concerns about losing, and so on and so on.
Would Team USA still be playing for a medal if James Harden/Stephen Curry/Kawhi Leonard/Damian Lillard put on the red, white, and blue? We’ll never know for sure, but the USA struggled to score consistently throughout this tournament and had six straight empty possessions in crunch time in the fourth against a strong French defense, which helped decide the game. After taking the lead in the third quarter with good ball movement, tempo, and a burst from Donovan Mitchell, the USA fell back into the habit of half-court isolation plays when the game got tight, and they didn’t have a Harden or Leonard to make that work. Kemba Walker is an All-Star/All-NBA level player, but he is not one of those top 10 game changers, and when he had an off night —2-of-9 shooting — the USA stumbled on the offensive end.
I believe Donovan Mitchell will grow into one of those elite players — and he had 29 against France, the game is not close without him — but at age 22 he is not there yet.
This World Cup was a big step along that learning curve for him, but he was scoreless in the fourth quarter (the team went away from him, at one point for a Harrison Barnes postup) and the one time he did attack Gobert rejected his shot. Mitchell is still growing at age 22. If he were the third-best scoring option on this team, would things be different?
Talent is not everything — the Greeks had Giannis Antetokounmpo but next to nothing around him, plus they used him poorly, and they struggled — but at the end of the day the Americans sent their B team, maybe their C team, and that’s not enough anymore. One key reason is…
2. THE GAP BETWEEN THE USA AND THE REST OF THE WORLD IS NOT THAT BIG
This is not 1992 anymore, when opposing players were asking the Dream Team members for autographs on the court after the game. This isn’t 2008 either, when a stacked Redeem Team reasserted Team USA’s dominance in the sport.
This is 2019, and the gap between the USA and the rest of the world is much smaller than it was even a decade ago. That is the new reality. There is much less margin for error for the Americans — especially if we don’t send our best.
In NBCSports.com’s recently completed “50 best players in 5 years” projections, three of the top five players are not Americans (Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic). The USA still has more depth than any nation in the world, and that was true 1-12 on this USA squad, but the gap is much smaller, especially among the guys getting heavy minutes. Against France, two of the three best players on the court were French NBA players in Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier. That — and a strong game from former Spur Nando De Colo — was enough to knock off the USA.
If the best players in the USA are going to treat the FIBA’S World Cup as a secondary event, this will continue to happen. And the best Americans likely will continue to treat the World Cup that way because…
3. THE WORLD CUP IS NOT THE OLYMPICS, (AND FIBA’S WORLD CUP “IMPROVEMENTS” HURT THE USA)
FIBA has a fever dream to turn its basketball World Cup into the kind of cash cow, “the-world-stops-to-watch” event that FIFA’s soccer World Cup is. FIBA is desperately making moves to try and make that dream a reality.
The results have been terrible. For Team USA and the tournament as a whole.
For American-born players, the Olympics remain the gold standard of international tournaments. The USA performed well enough in this World Cup to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo games — and next summer expect many of the USA’s best players to agree to go. For the USA the Olympics are the bigger stage, the bigger marketing platform, the tournament with more prestige. That’s the gold medal American players want.
FIBA is no fan of the Olympics (because the International Olympic Committee makes the money, not FIBA) and seems to be working to undercut the 5-on-5 games at the Olympics.
Nobody in America cares about the World Cup. Until we lose.
FIBA made a few changes in the run-up to this World Cup to help boost the event’s standing. They backfired.
First was to move the World Cup to 2019 — one year before the Olympics — instead of 2018, when it would have traditionally fallen. The reasoning FIBA gave was to get its World Cup out of the same year as the soccer World Cup, which obviously overshadows it. With the change, the basketball World Cup could serve as a primary Olympic qualifying event, too.
This shift drove some players away. To play for Team USA is a five-to-six week summer commitment, during the offseason when players are trying to rest, get their bodies right, relax a little, and spend time with friends and family. Most players are willing to make that sacrifice to play for the USA every other year (which is how the World Cup and Olympics had been spaced out), but when FIBA moved the tournament to 2019 it became back-to-back years of major summer commitments to play for Team USA. Players decided to take one of them off, and the World Cup is always going to lose that fight.
Also, FIBA scheduled this World Cup for early September, so it runs right up against the start of training camps around the globe, with little break for the players. That also was a strike against the event for players. (It wasn’t just the USA, international players such as Nikola Mirotic begged off, too, because of the event timing.)
FIBA’s other big change was to move World Cup qualifying around and have the games during what would be the season for the NBA and other major leagues in Europe. That is what FIFA does for soccer, except no major basketball league was going to take an “international break” — as the major European soccer leagues are doing this week — so the best players can take part in qualifying. It’s part of the soccer’s culture, basketball was not going to bend that way. The NBA did not release players, and neither did the major European leagues. That meant the best players in the world were not part of qualifying at all — the USA qualified by sending a team of G-League guys coached by Jeff Van Gundy.
For the World Cup itself, that qualifying system meant not all the best teams made the cut— Slovenia, the current European champions, did not qualify for the World Cup. That’s a team led by Goran Dragic and with Luka Doncic potentially, but they didn’t make it to China because their best players couldn’t take part in qualifying.
FIBA is a mess of an organization, and its lust for money and power hurt the World Cup, and it hurt the product the USA could put on the court.
But that was just one of the American’s problems.